One might see it as a good development that the federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is planning to shut down eight coal-burning generating stations across Alabama and Kentucky. While, indeed, this will be a blow to the profiteering coal industry (reducing coal production by 3,300 megawatts in those states), it could be little more than a false triumph in terms of health and the environment. That's because the TVA is planning on replacing those stations with nuclear plants and natural gas facilities.
The Obama administration has cracked down on carbon and mercury output, particularly when it is triggered by coal-fired power plants. And TVA board members were obligated to respond by phasing out some of these coal facilities, though not without Republican opposition. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., met with the president of the TVA in an attempt to stop the coal plant shutdowns, albeit unsuccessfully.
Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, praised the shutdowns, remarking, "This is a great move for public health, clean air and water, and our climate. It will also help protect families across the southeast from rising energy bills as the cost of coal-generated electricity continues to increase. I grew up in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee and went to college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, so I know firsthand how much that region has struggled with coal pollution. Residents, businesses, and industries have spoken loud and clear: they want the TVA to provide affordable, reliable, and clean power."
Unfortunately, the TVA seems to have no plans for implementing renewable energy, and that is why many environmentalists' reactions to the victory have now soured. According to TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield, coal usage is "dropping fast as a drilling boom in the U.S. pushes down the price of natural gas, the fuel that competes with coal for power generation."
He failed to mention the destructive practices associated with natural gas facilities, particularly fracking and chemical dumping. Currently, TVA executives are looking to build a new 800-megawatt natural-gas-fired plant in either Alabama or Kentucky.
But perhaps just as disconcerting to activists is the fact that the TVA is now constructing a new nuclear power plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., after having signed a contract with the Babcock & Wilcox Company. That company owned the reactor that was destroyed by a nuclear meltdown in the infamous Three Mile Island disaster. The new plant is only the first step in the TVA's campaign to step up its atomic output, in addition to natural gas.
Hitt, from the Sierra Club, stressed the importance of replacing these dangerous, unreliable fossil and nuclear fuels with cleaner, safer energy. "TVA's next steps are critical," she said. "The utility must consider the workers and communities and make sure their livelihoods are protected. But we urge the TVA to focus on replacing these retiring coal plants with clean and affordable energy technologies that will help create jobs and affordable electricity for decades to come. Wind and solar power are cleaner and cheaper than fossil fuels like natural gas, and there are dozens of examples of for-profit and public power utilities that are making huge investments in clean energy.
"We urge the TVA not to choose to rely on natural gas. It's time to leapfrog over dirty fossil fuels that will continue to exacerbate environmental and public health issues. This is the TVA's choice. They can get their fiscal house in order by developing and deploying groundbreaking energy efficiency programs that deliver real results, and by seizing this moment and leading on clean energy."
This article was first published in People's World by Blake Deppe.